Saturday, May 9, 2009

Fonseca Honors The Great Vallenato Singers

Juan Fernando Fonseca, Colombia's red hot singer-songwriter

What a coincidence. The biggest and best music stars from Colombia go by one name: the pop-rock icons Juanes and Shakira, salsa legend Fruko and now, the rising star known as Fonseca.

Since he burst on the international Latin music scene with his critically acclaimed hit disc "Corazon," Juan Fernando Fonseca has been an artist to watch.

"Corazon" (2005) became the biggest-selling disc in Colombia that year, outpacing Shakira's "Fijacion Oral, Vol. 1"/"Oral Fixation, Vol. 2." It also racked up several awards, including a Latin Grammy for best tropical Latin song. His followup disc, "Gratitud" (2008), just won three Premios Nuestra Tierra (a Colombian music award). And six of the eight stops on his current U.S. tour, dubbed "Gratitour 2009," have sold out.

Juanes, native son of Medellin, Colombia rocks the stage.

Perhaps most important, building on the work of Shakira, Juanes and others, Fonseca has helped to spur a movement rooted in the traditional folk music of Colombia.

"Shakira and Juanes have been so kind and encouraging to me," said Fonseca, who performs tonight in Chicago. "They have helped to open many doors. About 15 years ago, musicians began looking inside to the typical folk styles of our homeland. We started fusing our roots with the electric guitar, and it gave our music a special sound. Juanes built his style around guasca [a kind of folk music from the northwest state of Antioquia]. I've tried to do the same with vallenato."

A distinctive accordion-driven style, vallenato developed along the Caribbean coast. It has undergone a revival, thanks to Colombian pop-rock star Carlos Vives, whose landmark disc "Clasicos de la Provincia" (1994) paid tribute to the great vallenato songs of the last century. Fonseca regards Vives as a mentor. "I am a student of his, and I really love his music."

When he discovered "Clasicos de la Provincia," "it blew my mind," said Fonseca, 29, who grew up listening to American rock (Metallica and Guns 'N Roses) and British pop (George Michael). "This was the first time I heard vallenato and realized it is not just old-time music of my grandparents' era, but it is music closer to my generation."

Shakira, the queen of Colombia.

In between his U.S. tour dates, Fonseca returned to Colombia in late April for the 42nd annual Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata in the city of Valledupar, the Ground Zero of vallenato. "This was the third time I was invited to participate," he said. "It's an honor to be at the center of vallenato music. They like what I do, and I admire them so much."

Even so, Fonseca admits he's often asked "why a guy from Bogota" -- Colombia's most cosmopolitan city -- "sings vallenato. Of course I am not a pure vallenato artist," he said. "I take some things and add others. Especially all the music I grew up with. I try to experience every kind of music I love."

That's evident on "Gratitud," which further develops the jazz-pop vibe heard on "Corazon." "This time I wanted to explore these three roads: vallenato, pop and jazz," he said. "I wanted to take more liberty to do completely different things within one album."

He also sings in English on "Gratitud." "When I was writing 'Beautiful Sunshine,' I realized that it would work better in English," said Fonseca, who studied in Boston at the prestigious Berklee School of Music. "On 'Catalina,' when I switch to English, it was like I was joking in that part. I like to mix up English and Spanish."

For "Gratitud," Fonseca wrote or co-wrote all but two songs. He discovered one of the covers, "Perdon" by an unknown Colombian composer named Alejandro Bassi, by chance. "I was a friend's house, and I put an iPod on shuffle, and this song turned up," he said. "I really liked it, so I decided to record it."

Later, Bassi showed his "Gratitude" by making a YouTube video in which he thanks Fonseca for recording his song. "It's a great story," Fonseca said, laughing.

Meanwhile, Fonseca will soon reach another milestone. He turns 30 on May 29. "I feel grateful for everything I've achieved so far," he said. "Every year that you can have another birthday, it's a happy day. I want to keep on singing and writing like the artists I admire. Bands like Radiohead. Or Cafe Tacuba. And Juan Luis Guerra, I've been a fan of his since I was 7 years old. He's such a great guy, he's been so many places and had so many experiences. And yet he is so down to earth. I'd like to turn out like that."


Discover The Transformation of Medellin, Colombia (click here)

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